As we contemplate the melee that is the Reformed evangelical world today, it is very easy for the folks in the stands to get a little bewildered. As the saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the different numbers on the jerseys really helps. And if ever there were a time when people should know what’s going on, it is now.
DeYoung’s Helpful Taxonomy
What I would like to do now is to utilize Kevin DeYoung’s taxonomic analysis of how evangelicals engage with culture in order to show how the evangelical Overton window is more like a sliding glass door that can actually slide the length of the whole patio. But perhaps I understated that. It is starting to look as though we have a door that slides the length of the whole house.
Kevin’s fine descriptive piece can be found here. I actually agree with all of it, with one minor exception, excerpted below.
The loudest voices tend to be 1s and 4s, which makes sense because they tend to see many of these issues in the starkest terms and often collide with each other in ways that makes a lot of online noise. The 1s and 4s can also be the most separatist, with some voices (among the 1s) encouraging an exodus from white evangelical spaces and some voices (among the 4s) encouraging the woke to be excommunicated.Kevin De Young
I do agree that 1s and 4s tend to speak most forcefully, but I would want to make a few minor adjustments. I think DeYoung would agree that I am a 4, but I would argue that 4s are probably the most ecumenical of the lot. I would have no trouble publicly quoting a 3 with approval, and without qualification, and yet a 3 in good standing would have to be out of his mind to quote me with approval and without qualification. Correction—he would have to be out of his mind, or he would have to be Sam Allberry, who apparently has a “go anywhere” pass enabling him to do what he likes.
In my experience, the 3s tend therefore to be the most separatist. They have to be like that because they are the orthodox ones with the surliest hypothetical audience. For more on hypothetical audiences, see below. Were a 3 to quote me like that, the 1s and 2s would be all over him like white on rice—but I do hasten to add that by saying this I have no intention of silencing the marginalized voices of brown rice. I actually had no desire to hurt anyone, and I humbly apologize.
And I would not call for the excommunication of the 1s, but rather for their removal from leadership, which is quite a different thing. If Kevin DeYoung (a 3) were to visit Christ Church, I would want to invite him to preach, and I obviously wouldn’t do that if a woke 1 came. But we would serve communion to anyone baptized, whether a 1, 2, 3 or 4.
A Test Case
Now that the earth has gone around the sun a few times since that time when I decided to point out that Nadia Bolz-Weber had, via her blinkered feminist reductionism, melted some purity rings down to resemble a certain portion to the female anatomy, and then had given it to Gloria Steinem as an award, a number of my troll critics have since that time cast my modest demurral into the form of various scary memes, in order to circulate news of my perfidy with greater ease. This they industriously do whenever an opportunity arises. Being opportunists as they are, this is not difficult for them to do.
I would remind everyone that the thing that set me off was NOT the fact that a pagan priestess was acting like a pagan priestess, or that someone like Gloria Steinem was involved in it. No, the thing that seemed to me to be the utter frozen limit, with hundreds of miles of tundra to the south of it, was the fact that a couple of ladies writing for the White Horse Inn (for pity’s sake) gave Bolz-Weber’s scrofulous performance the engaging and thoughtful think piece treatment. They too thought that aspects of purity culture had been damaging, and that we evangelicals should try to do better, lest we try the patience of Nadia Bolz-Weber a little too high.
Now my point here is not to defend my language in that post (which I have already done (quite ably, though I blush to say it (although I have begun to wonder what the rules are for parentheses within parentheses)) and those defenses can be referred to both here and below).
Now I gave that feminist reduction of women to their genitalia the back of my hand, and told them what they were reducing women to. I said out loud what they were saying by clear implication. The two ladies writing for a ministry—that Michael “Reformed True North” Horton launched—tiptoed through that whole sorry business, on-the-other-handing as they went. So there’s your contrast—backhanding and on-the-other-handing, a 4 and a 2.
Now which person is bidding fair to get the non grata stamp of disapproval from the 3s in all of this? I will tell you. The White Horse article is still up and no apologies, and the two women associated with it could be easily hired by any organization in Gospel Coalition circles, and without exciting any murmured heavens to Betsy, or whatever passes for acceptable swearing in TGC circles.
So in which direction is the cultural discipline being applied? Whatever category you are in, according to DeYoung’s metric, which neighbor are you required to placate and which to shun? The one to your right or the one to your left?
Say you are a speaker of the Gospel Coalition type, and it come out that you are going to be speaking at a conference that is pretty sketchy. And by sketchy, I mean the kind of thing that would have provoked the apostle Paul to say that the organizers of said conference “would not inherit the kingdom of God.” We don’t know the details of the sketchiness, because that would wreck my illustration, but we do know that it is in fact sketchy.
Now let us say that the fact gets out that you are going to speak at the Gotham City Sketchy Conference 2022, and enough controversy erupts that you believe that you need to issue a press release. In that press release, you let it be known that you differ with the organizers of the conference decidedly, that you made that abundantly clear to them before you accepted their invitation, that the organizers had put no restrictions on what you would say, that you believe that everyone needs to hear the good news about Jesus Christ, and that you have a very firm commitment to inerrancy.
All of that sounds great, at least to me. Would any of it matter? Well, yes, it would, in about half the hypotheticals. You tell me which hypothetical conferences you would still get to go to, having said a bunch of true things about all of them.
- A conference hosted by the Black Lives Matter chapter of St. Louis, MO
- Revoice, also in St. Louis, MO
- Proud Boys of Eastern Oregon. They live close enough to Portland to drive there for “events.”
- Oathkeepers on Bikes, from from Tulsa, OK
- Evangelical Fan Dancers of Vegas
- Grace Agenda 2022, in Moscow, ID
To which events would the voice of sweet reason apply, and to which not? I think we all know the answer to the question, do we not?
And so to the extent this applies, I would argue that DeYoung’s categories #1-3 are being steered. If the commie worldview were a fisherman, #1 is in the boat, already filleted and in the cooler. #2 is thrashing by the side of the boat, and #3 is toying with the bait. Maybe just a little nibble.
A Hypothetical Auditorium
So this is not a further defense of anything I wrote, but rather a critique of my responsible and reasonable critics—those Christian critics who are true sons of encouragement, like Barnabas, but who, also like Barnabas (Gal. 2:13), have been swept up into a general pattern of what I consider to be a quite striking evangelical hypocrisy. Because it is a formally approved hypocrisy, reinforced by a bundle of accepted bromides, those who are trapped by it are usually simultaneously fastidious about it, and oblivious to it.
In other words, this post is not an answer to satisfy the trolls who, because of their cast iron frame of mind, are quite frankly unanswerable. But they are not unanswerable in the way that a tight hypothetical syllogism, in the form of modus ponens, is unanswerable, but more in the way that an old railroad tie, soaked in creosote, is unanswerable. The railroad tie, in other words, has its mind made up.
No,this is for those Christians who really want to present a gracious testimony to a lost and hurting world, and who are therefore vulnerable to the manipulative techniques of those enemies of the gospel who love their own lostness, and who also love the opportunities created by that lostness for continuing to damage and hurt others. And so, like Barnabas, these gracious Christians find themselves trying to appease all the wrong people, which in turn can cause these Christians to become very ungracious to their true friends, which is where the hypocrisy comes in.
Whenever a striking collision happens, whenever a polemical exchange occurs, there is a natural human tendency to glance at a hypothetical audience to see how they took it. How are they reacting to all this? But because the audience is hypothetical, those seats in the hypothetical auditorium have to be filled by the one doing the glancing. And those seats will be filled, almost of necessity, by imagined people who will reinforce the assumptions of the one doing the glancing.
We have various tricks for filling up these hypothetical auditoriums with the “right” kind of people. To illustrate: think of the teetotaler who is talking to a fellow Christian who drinks. He will fill up his auditorium with recovering alcoholics. “What are they going to think when they see you . . .”
Not only so, but the current zeitgeist has trained all of us to fill up those auditoriums with critics from our left, such that we are pressed, and we are constantly pressed, to do something to be a little more more winsome to them. Do something to satisfy them. Surprise them. Ingratiate them. There is therefore a constant and unrelenting pressure to cater to the left. This is why there is pressure to mollify and persuade the evangelical moderate who voted for Biden, and never any pressure to reassure the Christian nationalists. You need to reassure the former that you do have a heart, and you never need to reassure the latter that you are not going soft.
Here’s another example. There is a truism in conservative politics about the media that can be applied to this. When a Republican is caught in a scandal, the scandal is the story. When a Democrat is caught in a scandal, the Republican reaction to the scandal is the story. Shall I say that again, in a manner that is a bit more plain? If a Republican congressman is caught speeding in a red convertible, with the top down, and with $10K worth of crack cocaine found in the trunk, and with a couple of Washington-area courtesans along for the ride, that will be the story, plain and simple. If we put a D after that congressman’s name, the headline will be something like “Republicans pounce . . .”
In other words, the auditorium will be filled up with critics of Republican misdeeds in the first instance, and critics of Republican overreactions in the second instance. You see how this works? This is why Robert Conquest’s second law—”any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left wing”—has such fine predictive value.
Now the hypothetical audience is an inescapable reality, an inescapable concept. It is not whether we will have such an audience in our minds, but rather what the composition of that audience will be, and why. Christians in the public sphere therefore have to decide which audience they are playing to. Are they seeking the applause of NPR-listeners? Or the applause of a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1)? This is your reminder that they are not the same.
If You Doubt What I Say . . .
Try to imagine a world where some creative Christian genius hacker did something like to the following to an episode of some decadent sitcom, where it would get three million views in the forty-five minutes before YouTube took it down. This hacker left the dialogue intact, and the plot line intact, and the editing of the camera angles intact. What he broke into and altered was the laugh track.
Previously, the anti-gay comment would elicit groans and boos, the dirty joke would get uproarious laughter, the teen coming out to his staid parents would garner supportive applause. But when the hacker is done, the anti-gay comment gets uproarious applause, the dirty joke receives stone cold silence, and the teen coming out to his parents got the groans. What I want you to imagine is how completely disorienting it would be to watch a sitcom like that. You would feel like you were sitting in a different world because you would be sitting in a different world.
Laugh tracks are catechetical, and they are just a small piece of the catechesis that is going on all around us all the time. They teach you how your hypothetical audience is supposed to be responding. They teach you where you must pitch your appeal. They are the reason why so many of us glance left.
But as soon as you start pitching your appeal in that direction, your hypothetical audience starts to drift further left on you. You find yourself having to move ever leftward to remain “winsome.” And this, boys and girls, is how we got from Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown “blunder” on single motherhood to the point where we are today, where doctors, without risking their licenses, will actually take money in order to cut off the breasts of perfectly healthy teen-aged girls. They know they can get away with it because their hypothetical auditorium is filled with tranny-sympathizers.
And we have gotten to the place where numerous Christians will be far more bothered by the fact that a Christian pastor (me) uses language that includes the word “tranny” than they are about living in a country where the priests of Baal are castrating boys and mutilating girls.
Chesterton is helpful on this topic in two ways. First, he shows how meticulous people can be when trapped in their system.
To be wrong, and to be carefully wrong, that is the definition of decadence.”G.K. Chesterton
Jesus referred to this when He spoke of those who tithed meticulously out of their spice racks, and to those who went and got the tweezers to get the gnat out of their camel-flavored coffee, and those who had a beam in their eye but attempted to get a speck out of their brother’s eye, and those who thought that gold sanctified the altar, and to those who put a second coat of whitewash on the sepulcher. He strikes at this error often enough to make us think that it might be a common temptation to the pious, to those who sit in Moses’ seat. Once you are trapped in a system that cannot tell which is the pebble and which is the two ton block of granite, you are what Francis Turretin would have called “a patsy.” And you might be the nicest 3 in the entire world, and still be a patsy.
I also hasten to add that you might be the most insightful and trenchant 4 in the world and still be a jerk. If you don’t have love, what good does it do to understand all mysteries, and to have all knowledge (1 Cor. 13:2)? But the temptation to miss the whole point like this is not unique to 4s. The 3s really want to feed the poor, which can be done without love also (1 Cor. 13:3).
Second, and related to all of this, Chesterton reminds us that the difference between the crude word and the refined word is that the crude word usually preserves a sense of morality.
“Nine times out of ten it is the coarse word that condemns an evil, and the refined word that excuses it.”G.K. Chesterton
I recently had a Twitter exchange with some of those fastidious souls who had a problem with the language I used in my rebuke of Nadia Bolz-Weber. They were circulating a meme with my picture on it, along with the hot news of what I had written. But this meant that, according to them, the use of such language is fully appropriate when a 1 is rebuking a 4, but not when a 4 is rebuking a negative 2. I thought this was funny, and so I pointed it out. Why is use of the c-word awful when a pastor uses it to rebuke a priestess of the sexual revolution, but not awful when a pastor uses it to rebuke a defender of Christian orthodoxy? Having made this point, someone rushed in to defend the pastor who was critiquing me. “This is such an infantile question, Doug. Are you joking? It is the use [of] a word that has moral weight. Not the word itself.”
To which I reply, exactly so. “Not the word itself.” So my offense was not the word I used. The offense was the target I chose. The problem was not that I used an “unrighteous” word. The problem was that I was defending a righteous cause.
So then, in sum, the 3s are not the woke ones, but they are trying to mollify or appease or bring back the woke ones, those being the 1s and 2s. It is not that they don’t know how to exercise discipline of views they differ with—they can be very firm with the 4s. They draw a hard line with the 4s, and one sees their point of course.
If they didn’t do that, what kind of fun would the laugh track have at their expense?